Making sense of our emotions

The dichotomy between rational thinking and emotional behaviour has always been a key element of Western philosophical history. The Western tradition has historically aligned itself to the notion of Dualism, which separates out the mind from the body and is primarily based on the thinking of Descartes. Extreme Dualism sees emotional behaviour as the complete antithesis of rational behaviour. Modern neuroscience however suggests that truly rational behaviour is not possible without emotion. Moreover, there are increasing amounts of experimental and clinical data pointing to the view that emotions and feelings are actually necessary for rational behaviour. In turn, rationality has not historically been naturally applied to emotions. We do not attempt to interpret our emotions and make sense of them and from there manage their manifestation in a constructive way. We prefer to keep our rational and emotional realms separate. 

Built on the Western tradition of Duality is an educational system which concentrates solely on the development of intellectual and practical skills, both functions of the rational brain. Whilst increasing efforts are made to raise academic standards, emotional education remains non-existent in the national curriculum. Our ability to navigate our emotions and to manage them intelligently is largely left to chance. The result is a society that rewards academic attainment whilst simultaneously producing emotional illiteracy.

Alongside this are increasing trends of aggression and depression, the breakdown of relationships and families, and the highest levels of dependency, addiction, social problems and mental illness that have ever existed. We do not learn about our emotions and we do not know how to navigate the territory they take us into. The consequential costs of this at both an individual and collective level are high.

Our emotions serve a critical role in guiding our behaviour and actions but we tend to be uneducated in translating their purpose. Anger, for instance, can tell us what it is we care about. It can also be a warning that we may not be managing our personal boundaries well or we may be failing to recognise and articulate our own needs against the needs and actions of others.  Due to the emotional realm remaining unrecognised as a valid area of learning and education, two things tend to happen. Firstly, we suppress or deny our emotions and feelings and remain unaware of what they are trying to tell us. Secondly, and often due to suppressing them, they eventually erupt and we are in their grip. At this point, all rational behaviour goes out of the window and we are caught in an uncontrollable torrent. We are not taught how to recognise and be guided by our emotions and we are not taught how to manage them intelligently. Either we act without their guidance and ignore them altogether or we act whilst in their grip. We do not find the middle road and use our emotions intelligently. A major consequence of this is that our decision-making abilities and our capacity to navigate life become compromised.

In his book ‘Descartes’ Error’, Antonio Damasio describes the case of a patient called Elliot. Elliot was a young man of high IQ who underwent a major change in his personality after developing, and then having brain surgery to remove, a brain tumour. As a result of this, he suffered damage to the prefrontal areas of his brain. One of the most dramatic consequences of this was that Elliot lost his emotions, or more accurately he lost his feelings which were his subjective experience of his emotions. What then emerged was that Elliot could no longer make rational decisions. He could discuss the pros and cons of various scenarios, so his rational ability and IQ were intact, but he could no longer choose between them. Without emotions, he could not weigh up the various options, and could not decide on appropriate action.

The separation of logic from emotion not only fails to recognise that they are integral systems but it tends to relegate emotional experience and elevate intellectual experience. This not only diminishes the experience of what it means to be human but it is detrimental to our ability to be fulfilled. Life is meant to be lived and experienced, not just analysed and observed. In his brilliant book on Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman states that it is emotional intelligence, not intellectual intelligence, that is the governing factor in whether or not we live happy and productive lives and it underpins our ability to handle our personal and professional relationships which are the cornerstone of well-being and community.

The emphasis on intellectual intelligence produces some brilliant minds who cannot function easily in the social and emotional worlds. These are the highly skilled doctors who have an abrupt and dismissive bedside manner, the lawyers who can deliver a convincing court case but cannot empathise or build relationships with their clients, and the academics who live in hermetically sealed environments who are esteemed for their knowledge and intellect but cannot handle emotional challenges in their professional or personal lives. In the organisational and business world these are the leaders and managers whose role in redundancy ends once the announcement is made, conveniently preferring to pass it over as ‘one for HR’, and who declare a culture of openness and engagement whilst creating an environment of fear and blame. In the family and social arena, it leads to superficial or fraught relationships where issues such as vulnerability, fear, anger and personal concerns are never properly discussed or shared. Things are hinted at but remain unsaid and unexplored. At the same time joy, compassion and the ability to feel and foster deep connection are seriously compromised.

If we are to address the significant deficits in our educational, professional and personal lives, a new paradigm needs to emerge which recognises the importance and value of emotional education alongside intellectual and practical education. Instead of ignoring our emotions and failing to integrate them, we need to treat them as a source of wisdom and guidance. We need to blend our ability to reason and rationalise with our capacity to feel. If we are to live lives of meaning and fulfilment, and embrace the experience of what is it to be truly human, we must learn to make sense of our emotions, develop the skills to navigate their territory, and trust the intelligence that naturally resides in our emotional realm.

The Sweetness of Slowing Down

One of the things I like about the snow is that it forces us all to slow down.  We can’t tear along the road in the car at 50mph then suddenly slam the brakes on at the traffic lights without expecting to do a few pirouettes through the junction. We can’t leave the house ten minutes late and do the usual half-run down the street to catch the train or the bus without landing on our backs, feeling like we’ve met an invisible martial artist who has suddenly and unexpectedly taken our feet out from under us. When it snows, we are forced to take things at a much steadier pace. Life seems to happen in slow motion and, if we adjust to it, it can be quite a refreshing change.

We normally live at such a fast rhythm these days that the only time we stop is when we fall into bed or take a holiday. Even the long leisurely years of childhood have speeded up. When I saw my nephew last weekend (he’s eleven) and asked him what he was doing he replied ‘Monday I’ve got this, Tuesday I’m doing that, Wednesday I’m staying with my friend and on Thursday my friend is staying with me’. When I was his age, I wouldn’t have known what I was doing in the afternoon, never mind what I was doing four days from now.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have a full life and plenty going on but in amongst all the madness it’s good to have a bit of stillness and calm. I remember when I was young, there was an old woman who lived in the house at the back of ours and now and again I used to go round with something for her from my mum. I’d ring the bell and look through the frosted glass in the front door. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, I’d see the shape of a figure emerge at the far end of the hallway and slowly walk towards me. I could have run round the block three times in the few minutes it took her to get to the front door but I knew that probably wasn’t the thing to do. So I’d sing ‘Come on, come on, come on’ under my breath to as many different melodies as I could think of and wait on the step for her to open the door.

She used to invite me in and I can remember that when I stepped inside it was as though my urge to hurry up disappeared. It was like going back in time and entering into a black and white photograph. Everything was from a different era and the clock ran at a different pace. At first I found it a bit unnerving but I gradually got used to it and then actually began to enjoy it. We would have a chat whenever I went round and she would tell me about her family and ask about mine. There was something about having a conversation with her when nothing else was going on that was quite special. She wasn’t talking to me while she was doing something else. She wasn’t half with me because she was in a rush to get out. She was fully present and it was just the two of us talking and listening with all the time in the world.

That taught me at young age about the value of slowing down and the sweetness that can exist when there is not much going on apart from a little conversation and a couple slices of chocolate cake. Perhaps when it snows that is nature’s way of setting up that space.


The Meaning of Success

Whilst there is much talk about ‘success’ in life I have always felt that that type of emphasis focuses people on one-upmanship, the relentless pursuit of material gain and the avoidance, and therefore fear, of failure. I often overhear conversations along the lines of ‘He or she is very successful, but so-and-so hasn’t quite made it’. All of our organisations, from schools to corporate bodies, have measures in place to determine how ‘successful’ or otherwise they are. Where do we feature in the league table? Are we doing better than our competitors? How much money have we made? Of course, these things are important but they are not the be-all-and-end-all. Instead of focussing on success and achievement from the outset I often wonder how things would change if we were to ask a different question. What if our start point was not about success but about this: What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How would that change things and what would it open up for us?

In Western education there is a strong focus on acquiring subject knowledge as a foundation for future life. Much organisational training follows the same route – acquiring more knowledge on how to do your job better and more successfully. Very rarely are things like gratitude, trust, respect, honesty and integrity taught. In fact, it is assumed that these things are not teachable or learnable and yet it is usually because of the existence or non-existence of these factors that our lives become enriched or diminished. In the pursuit of technical competence, the development of character, and all the challenges that go along with that, is overlooked. I wonder how lives would change if alongside their subject studies, children were taught the art of perseverance and the exercise of conscience as a fundamental way of living and something that would apply for the rest of their lives.

Our current way of living produces a huge paradox: we are fantastically wealthy and have access to all sorts of products and services, and yet we live impoverished lives. As humans, we treat all other forms of life as though they exist for our convenience and we have become separated from the consequences of our actions. Organisations whose leaders and senior staff consider their only responsibility is to create money are the ones where lack of purpose, emptiness of soul and continual illness are not infrequent results. Whilst we have made huge advances in science, it creates the illusion that everything can be reduced and explained. If something cannot be logically defined then it holds no validity. If it cannot be described, rationalised or analysed, then it is dismissed. In our attempt to interpret the night sky we have forgotten the magic of simply looking at the stars.

The work we do at One Life 2 Live centres around assisting people to re-connect with the meaning and purpose of their own life, or perhaps to really discover it for the first time. It is all too common now for people to feel isolated and insignificant; a little dead on the inside, feeling that something is missing but not quite able to put their finger on what it is. Through our work we aim to help people recognise their own unique and personal significance, to step into it and to begin to experience the essence of being alive. That means exploring the very core of our own beings. It is from that place that we notice and fail to notice what we can do and what is possible. It is from that place that we act or fail to act and it is our actions that ultimately determine the quality of our lives and the lives of those around us. Perhaps if we shift our focus away from personal success towards living a life of meaning we can begin to change what we notice, reshape how we act and begin to discover our personal significance and value.